Conservative, Republican, Liberal, Democrat
If you are conservative, you’re automatically a Republican; if you are liberal, you are supposed to be a Democrat. But are these terms really synonyms of each other? As a language fanatic, I did a little digging. Turns out, this contrast is partly true.
Conservatism is defined originally as “the disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional and to limit change.” (Italics added.) In the Cultural Dictionary of Dictionary.com (this website should be everyone’s best friend, but that’s my own personal opinion) there isn’t much change as conservatism is “A general preference for the existing order of society, and an opposition to efforts to bring about sharp change.”(Again, italics added.) Considering the fact that ‘conserve’ is a pretty definitive word of preservation and such, calling someone a conservative generally has the meaning that you intend. Established systems that have worked are a good reason to continue supporting them, and America as a whole is actually quite conservative. This country was one of the last of the modern first worlds to jump onto the Industrial Revolution and abolish slavery. The principle isn’t necessarily a bad influence, just one that makes adjustments slow enough so events don’t rock the boat so badly that it capsizes.
Republicans both of the 20th and the 21st centuries certainly exhibit this general tendency, but the party itself has few ideological principles that it has held onto since the division of the Democratic Republican Party in 1824. The strongest currently is the support of state’s rights over the Federal (aka national) government, but that was not until the 1970’s (more recent that I expected actually). Before that the Democrat party was big on state’s rights (think Dixie Dems), and ruled in many of the same states that the Republican Party does today.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Liberalism, which is “… advocating the freedom of the individual, parliamentary systems of government, nonviolent modification of political, social, or economic institutions to assure unrestricted development…and government guarantees of individual rights and civil liberties.” Bit of a mouthful, but essentially liberals like having the option of change. Turn of the century however, things are shifted a little as the Cultural Dictionary makes a differentiation: “In the twentieth century, a viewpoint or ideology associated with free political institutions, religious toleration, as well as support for a strong role of government in regulating capitalism and constructing the welfare state. (Italics added.) Each of these sprang up from liberal movements, but have been permanently adopted by the Democrat Party.
And this is why I love language — with the meanings and history of words, you really get down to the root of situations that aren’t as polarized as they seem. The whole reason for the rivalry is because these groups generally have opposite philosophies and agendas, so it begs the question, how many groups are there? The Democrat and Republican Parties are opposites of each other, and Conservatism and Liberalism are opposites of each other, but liberalism isn’t opposite of the Republican Party, or Conservatism of the Democrat Party. There are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, but there are also communists, anarchists, libertarians, and everything in between.
In a nation where representation is key to governing the way you want it to, it may be a good idea to discover just how many people are truly liberal, conservative, or somewhere in the middle. So, take your pick on what fits your personal ideologies!
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